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How to landscape your garden or plot

Landscaping – changing the layout of the non-living components of a plot – is a messy, disruptive business: so do it early and do it right. Take your time making a plan before getting the diggers in, and always work with the existing landscape if you can.

When you finally take possession of your chosen plot, there’ll always be things about it that you’d like to change: poorly situated trees, ghastly ornamental planting, nasty hardscape features or, most frequent of all, slope that renders whole areas useless. It’s very tempting to hire yourself a digger and just get to work, but there are a few things you should consider before you start.

seedling in handful of dirt, imageSpend a year just watching

This may sound tough, but until you have watched what happens on your land for a full year you won’t really understand its features. Where are the frost pockets? In heavy rain, does it have to cope with run-off from neighbouring plots? How well does it drain? How does the prevailing wind affect the property, and what happens when it changes? What sorts of wildlife visit it? How dry does the soil get in summer?

Make notes as the year passes, and draw plenty of diagrams. Knowing that deer visit the garden when neighbouring fields are empty, that a band of trees is acting as a windbreak against the occasional easterly wind, or that a seeming pointless dwarf wall is actually there to deflect rare but violent run-off during storms may well save you making costly blunders later.

Make a plan

Obvious? Perhaps; yet all too often people approach major projects with detailed sketches of their vegetable garden and not much else. Always consider the site as a whole and how each part of it relates to everything else, and you won’t find yourself having to make expensive changes later. If you choose to tackle one area of your garden at a time, without an overall plan, it may be years before you actually complete the project.

Consider hardscaping first

Hardscaping – the non-living components of the plot – is much more difficult to change at later stages than plants, so getting your plot’s infrastructure right at the start is vitally important. Consider boundary walls and fences first, then drainage and slope, then outbuildings, then piped water and power, and finally paths and ornamental features.

Work with existing landscape contours where you can

Changing the shape of the landscape using diggers is tremendously damaging for the soil, causing major loss of humus. The moment you churn the soil up it loses its stability, making it more prone to drying out and being washed away by the rain. If you have a good depth of topsoil it may be possible to save some, but inevitably even that will get mixed in with some nutrient-poor subsoil. Changing the lie of the land always results in poorer soil, so for areas where fertility is important you will need to buy fresh topsoil (a major expense) or be prepared to dress with organic material twice a year for quite some time.

Consider erosion

Nothing in the landscape exists in isolation; even an otherwise useless sloping lawn is using its mat of roots to hold the soil together and its foliage to reduce evaporation. Strip off the grass and the next heavy rains will cut gulleys into the soil, and a spell of dry windy weather will start to blow it away. The moment the diggers are gone you need to attend to soil stability by sowing grass (which may not be possible at all times of year) or covering the ground with a control blanket or jute netting. These latter two options can be used to stabilise the ground and suppress weeds while other plantings take hold, and should be biodegradable to avoid the heavy and time-consuming process of removing them several years later.

swale at the top of slope, image

A swale (image courtesy of Robatsunbright (Wikihow) attr 2.5 generic

How well a slope will resist erosion depends on the composition of the subsoil, with sandy material moving much more readily than clays, but it also depends on the amount of water that the slope has to cope with. If run-off from neighbouring ground is considerable, you can improve things by cutting a swale (a wide, shallow ditch) along the contour line at the top of the slope. This spreads the water out horizontally and helps it soak into the soil rather than running along the surface, benefitting planting down slope. You can see how to dig them on Wikihow.

Get a digger operator you can trust

Not all drivers were created equally. Some are highly skilled operatives who are used to working with soil in small spaces: some are only used to working on nice flat building sites with someone doing all the thinking for them. Use a reputable local outfit (preferably a landscape firm) so that you have some comeback, and go with personal recommendation if you can.

Using your old grass turves

If you decide to remove the top layer of a grassy area, never waste the turves! Using a sharp spade, cut the surface into squares and lift the top few inches of topsoil off using a sharp spade. Stack the turves upside down in a cube in a shady spot and water them well, before covering them with a tarpaulin. In a year or two they will have rotted down into rich loamy soil that’s perfect for raised beds, or for making your own potting compost.

Get the area planted up quickly

Nature hates bare ground. It doesn’t matter how poor the soil is; if you don’t sow ground cover or cover the area with a mulch, colonizing species like dandelions and thistles will move in with astonishing rapidity, leaving you with yet another job to do – removing them.

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